Mississippi River cruises have surged in popularity in recent decades. They are especially appealing to mature travelers looking to enjoy guided tours of top cities and small towns in several Southern and Midwestern states.
Add in regionally inspired cuisine enjoyed aboard a luxurious river ship, plus the camaraderie of other culturally curious travelers, and cruising the most celebrated river in the United States promises satisfaction on multiple levels.
Three major cruise lines sail the Mississippi River, which stretches 2,340 miles from New Orleans to Minneapolis-St. Paul: American Cruise Lines, American Queen Voyages and Viking. Each line offers several similar itineraries ranging from eight to 22 days, but the ships themselves differ. Some are retro-inspired paddlewheelers, others sleek modern riverboats. The onboard dining and entertainment, as well as the excursions in port, also vary across the lines.
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We’ve rounded up the best Mississippi River cruises for seniors, history buffs and Americana lovers, so you can find your perfect U.S. river cruise itinerary based on your interests and travel preferences.
Best cruise for Civil War history: Lower Mississippi (round-trip New Orleans)
The Deep South attracts history buffs with its Civil War battlefields and cemeteries and 18th- and 19th-century mansions guarded by regiments of live oaks. All three cruise lines offer a Lower Mississippi river cruise, sailing round-trip from New Orleans, but only one features multiple excursions geared to those with a keen interest in the 19th-century conflict.
On American Cruise Lines’ eight-day New Orleans to New Orleans itinerary, cruisers can visit Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the National Military Park commemorates the campaign, siege and defense of Vicksburg in 1863. In Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge, a guided excursion explores critical locations in the Civil War’s Battle of Baton Rouge and Port Hudson.
Other ports bring to life the pre-war South. In Oak Alley, Louisiana, guests can tour a Greek Revival mansion on a sugar plantation built and maintained by slaves. While no Civil War fighting took place in Natchez, Mississippi, the city is home to hundreds of lavish mansions from the era and the Historic Natchez Cemetery, which dates to 1822.
This itinerary is offered on five American Cruise Lines ships, ranging from the 150-passenger classic paddlewheeler American Heritage to the 180-passenger modern riverboat American Serenade. American Cruise Lines is known for its regionally inspired cuisine, served with complimentary wine and beer at lunch and dinner, plus complimentary cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and hosted entertainment in the main lounges.
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Some excursions and a pre-cruise hotel stay in the Big Easy are included in the cruise fare. You can book additional day tours for an extra cost.
Related: Best river cruise lines around the world
If you’re especially passionate about Civil War history, look for American Cruise Lines’ special Civil War-themed cruises on limited dates, which allow a deeper dive into the period. These include an eight-day Lower Mississippi itinerary from Memphis to New Orleans (or vice versa).
In addition to visiting monuments and museums, you’ll enjoy onboard lectures and presentations and interaction with other Civil War buffs. These sailings are aboard 180-guest American Serenade and American Symphony.
Best cruise for music: Lower Mississippi (New Orleans to Memphis)
If you love the musical genres of the South, a Mississippi River cruise from New Orleans to Memphis (or vice versa) should be your choice.
From Crescent City, the birthplace of American jazz, to Memphis, known as the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll, this itinerary celebrates the region’s homegrown rhythms. All three cruise lines offer itineraries between New Orleans and Memphis, but Viking and American Queen Voyages feature more excursions and onboard experiences tailored to music lovers.
Viking’s 12-day Heart of the Delta itinerary includes a two-night pre-cruise hotel stay in New Orleans (beginning with 2024 itineraries). This allows ample time to enjoy the city’s street musicians and jazz clubs.
In Baton Rouge, you can visit the Capitol Park Museum, which showcases exhibits dedicated to Louisiana’s musical heritage and Mardi Gras traditions. While in Natchez, Mississippi, classical music (played on a 1903 Steinway piano) and Southern cuisine are the stars of the excursion to Lansdowne and Joseph Stone House.
The port call in Greenville, Mississippi, is steeped in the blues with a chance to visit a museum dedicated to hometown legend B.B. King. The grand finale of the cruise is two nights in Memphis, where you can enjoy all things blues, barbecue and Elvis Presley.
Viking is a newcomer to the Mississippi River, and all sailings are aboard the 386-guest Viking Mississippi. The riverboat debuted in 2022 and features a modern Scandinavian design.
Guests can enjoy a sun terrace with an aft infinity pool and an Explorer’s Lounge with panoramic forward views of the Mississippi. The Restaurant serves both Southern regional cuisine and global favorites, and the ship welcomes local musicians onboard for evening entertainment.
If you prefer a more nostalgic vibe, American Queen Voyages offers a nine-day Lower Mississippi New Orleans to Memphis voyage aboard the 417-passenger American Queen.
The largest steamboat ever built, the ship was christened in Memphis in 2012 by godmother Priscilla Presley, so musical immersion abounds. You’ll enjoy an authentic riverboat experience with nightly performances in the Grand Saloon, designed to resemble a 19th-century opera house.
The itinerary visits the Lower Mississippi’s top ports, including Natchez and Tunica, Mississippi, home to the Blues Visitor Center and Museum. The attraction is housed in an 1895 railroad depot and features a large display of guitars used by famous musicians. Upon disembarkation, guests can book a two-night post-cruise tour in Memphis to enjoy the city’s barbecue and music scenes.
Related: First impressions of a US river cruise on American Queen
Best cruise for art and architecture: Upper Mississippi
An Upper Mississippi cruise between St. Louis, Missouri, and St. Paul, Minnesota, provides access to some of the top architectural landmarks and artistic treasures of the American Heartland — from Eero Saarinen’s soaring Gateway Arch to Frank Lloyd Wright’s inimitable Taliesin.
All three cruise lines offer Upper Mississippi sailings from July through September. Viking and American Cruise Lines’ itineraries and excursions are our picks for fans of American art and architecture.
Viking River Cruises’ American Heartland itinerary sails from St. Louis to St. Paul (or vice versa) and runs eight days in 2023 and 12 days with pre- and post-cruise stays in 2024. You’ll explore architectural gems aboard Viking Mississippi, itself an example of sleek, Scandinavian-inspired nautical architecture.
Highlights include St. Louis, where you’ll admire Saarinen’s circa-1965 Gateway Arch, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis featuring a 41-million-piece mosaic and the Renaissance Revival-style City Hall. From Dubuque, Iowa, you can head to Spring Green, Wisconsin, to visit Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s private home, studio and school from 1911 to 1959.
After a day in Redwing, Minnesota, known for its pottery studios, you’ll end your journey in the Twin Cities, home to the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minneapolis and well-preserved Victorian buildings in St. Paul.
Related: River cruise packing list: What to pack when traveling by riverboat
American Cruise Line’s eight-day Upper Mississippi river cruise covers much of the same ground, with a few differences. Sailings are available on the 150-passenger paddlewheeler American Heritage as well as on three sleek new 180-guest riverboats, American Melody, American Serenade and American Symphony.
Beyond the landmarks of St. Louis, highlights include Davenport, Iowa, where you can visit the Smithsonian-affiliated Putnam Museum, and Dubuque, Iowa, known for its colorful Victorian mansions. (An excursion to the Field of Dreams featured in the 1989 Kevin Costner movie is also available.)
Winona, Minnesota, boasts some of the state’s most architecturally significant buildings, many featuring the beautiful stained glass for which the city is known. Then it’s off to Red Wing, Minnesota, where you can explore the Pottery Museum before completing your journey in the Twin Cities.
Best multi-river paddlewheel cruise: Ohio and Mississippi rivers
Kentucky bourbon, St. Louis beer, legendary baseball bats and the nostalgia of cruising both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers aboard a luxury paddlewheeler make American Queen Voyages’ nine-day Louisville to St. Louis (or vice versa) itinerary a delight for fans of America’s favorite pastimes.
Offered once each summer, this journey explores eight ports in Kentucky and Missouri. It takes place aboard the 245-passenger American Countess, a Southern-inspired paddlewheeler with a regionally focused culinary program and nightly musical entertainment.
In Louisville, you can tour the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory or learn about Kentucky Derby champions at historic Churchill Downs. The city is also home to the Muhammad Ali Center (Louisville was the boxing great’s hometown) and dozens of atmospheric bars serving bourbon straight up or in a classic Old Fashioned cocktail.
America’s 16th president is the focus in Brandenburg, Kentucky as you enjoy an excursion to the nearby Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and the Lincoln Museum. Bluegrass music, artisanal handicrafts and more bourbon tasting await in other Ohio River ports, such as Paducah, home to the National Quilt Museum.
On the Mississippi River, you’ll call on Cape Girardeau, a historic trading post known for its 1,100-foot-long mural featuring 24 panels portraying its rich heritage. It’s also known for the Missouri Wall of Fame and museums and landmark homes that preserve its past. (The city was visited by Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea.)
The history of beer is on tap in the remaining Missouri ports (Kimmswick is home to the Anheuser Museum and Estate) and St. Louis, where you’ll disembark and have a chance to explore The Gateway City, where Budweiser and other brewery experiences await.
Best extended cruise: Complete Mississippi
Want it all? You can visit up to 20 ports in as many as nine states on a 22-day Mississippi River journey from New Orleans to St. Paul. These itineraries are offered by both American Cruise Lines and Viking, and are perfect for seniors with plenty of time to explore.
American Cruise Lines offers the 22-day Complete Mississippi Cruise aboard three 180-passenger modern river ships: American Melody, American Serenade and American Symphony.
After a pre-cruise hotel stay in New Orleans, passengers journey through all aspects of American history. You’ll visit ports known for ornate mansions (Oak Alley and St. Francisville, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi), Civil War battles (Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Vicksburg, Mississippi), music (Memphis and Greenville, Tennessee) and architecture (St. Louis and Dubuque, Iowa). You’ll also call on historic Missouri trading posts, such as New Madrid (a Spanish outpost) and Cape Girardeau (a French river port).
Viking River Cruises’ 22-day Grand Mississippi Voyage, available in 2024 aboard the 386-passenger Viking Mississippi, also embarks in New Orleans and visits 16 ports in nine states as it cruises north to St. Paul, Minnesota.
During this sailing, you’ll overnight in Memphis, so there’s time to fully savor barbecue, the blues and Elvis Presley’s Graceland. A port call in Paducah, Kentucky, lets you explore the National Quilt Museum and colorful street murals.
You can enjoy excursions in Missouri’s most famous big city (St. Louis) and small town (Hannibal) and then visit three ports in Iowa known for their historic architecture and agriculture (including a tour of the John Deere Pavilion). Learn about the Norwegian heritage of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and get to know the eagles and pottery of Red Wing, Minnesota, before disembarking in St. Paul.
History buffs and Americana lovers will find plenty to enjoy on a Mississippi River cruise. Your ship will stop in major cities and lesser-known towns, offering excursions to historic sites and evenings spent enjoying locally inspired cuisine and regional music.
The three cruise lines sailing America’s most legendary river offer itineraries for every interest on ships designed with mature travelers in mind. Whether you want to visit Civil War sites, see top architectural landmarks, or enjoy our country’s best-loved musical genres, one or more of the lines will offer a Mississippi River itinerary that will help you do it — in comfort and style as you make new friends on board.
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